When I think of sexual violence, I think immediately of the horrific cases that are featured in the media: the rapes that occurred on the UNC campus, in the military, the Steubenville case that was captured in film and social media. And then I also think of the case of Rosa, a 9-year-old girl who was raped in Central America, or the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and held for hundreds of days, or the Yazidi women who were captured and held as sex slaves by ISIS. I think of the Democratic Republic on the Congo and Sierra Leone where rape is an act of war, and I think of my own country, India, and the horrible sexual assault of a college student on a bus in New Delhi. And then I think just how common an experience this is, how universal it is, and how women’s bodies are used and violated by a host of criminals, from individuals to terrorist organizations, religious organizations, and governments. The UN estimates that one-third of women around the world have experienced some form of sexual violence or harassment.
Because I work at Ipas, a global organization that works to improve access to safe abortion care and advance women’s reproductive rights, I also think about the consequences of sexual violence for the individual woman and those who love her: the emotional trauma, disease, unwanted pregnancy. Will the girls kidnapped in Northern Nigeria be able to access reproductive health services? Will the student health services at UNC provide comprehensive care to students who are sexually assaulted?
These are the practicalities of dealing with sexual violence. The kind of realities that the Orange County Rape Crisis Center — in my hometown of Chapel Hill, NC — deals with serving 550 women and men this past year. Women in pain. Women in crisis. Women and families in traumatic situations.
But why does this happen? Why is it so common? Why is it universal?
We can talk about the need to punish the perpetrators, about the need to have laws and policies that address the issues, about why and how sexual violence is a violation of human rights. And certainly the human rights framework provides us with a common language and approach. It reminds us that there are universally agreed upon standards that nations have on how human beings should be treated, that there is legal precedence that can be used to bring perpetrators to justice, that the violations of women’s rights that we see on a daily basis are wrong. And we’re not the only ones who think so. The world agrees with us.
But the conversation that we are just starting to have here and around the world is about culture. What is it about our culture(s) that permits this kind of brutality? You’ve no doubt heard the term “rape culture” in the press. It’s actually a fairly old term that refers to a set of beliefs that view male aggression as a positive and where sexual violence is considered sexy and desirable. The behaviors that stem from these beliefs range from hostile or inappropriate comments, touching, sexual violence, and rape. As horrible as these physical attacks are, I want to also be clear that rape culture is not just about actual physical violence. It’s the emotional terrorism that women and girls experience, the fear that guides many of our decisions, and the knowledge that our bodies aren’t fully our own.
As Pamela Fletcher said years ago: “not until we recognize that issues of rape culture are a global human rights issue can steps be taken to dismantle the current social and cultural norms and the issues of power in relation to the treatment of women and girls in regards to sexual assault.”
The interpretation of sexual violence is not uniform globally. As discourse analysis of media reports of sexual violence cases shows, there is a crucial difference in how sexual violence is conceptualized in the US and overseas. In the US, we tend to focus on the victim and the perpetrator, as individuals separate from the social systems that produced them and the situation that resulted in the violence. This leads people to judge the victim, find reasons for the attack, and not really consider the institutions and values that contribute to the problem. In some ways, this is an easier portrayal of the issue because it allows those of us who are not part of “the problem” to not have to participate. After all, we all make up those institutions and values, and so we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.
In discussion of sexual violence cases overseas, the news media contextualize the stories and talk about the patriarchal norms and institutions that encourage the behavior. In the Delhi case, for example, there was discussion in the news media about caste, class, gender, even religion. In other words, sexual violence was thought of as symptomatic of a deeper societal problem. This lead to a consideration of laws and policies, the value that society places on girls and women, it brought more men as fathers and brothers into the discussion, and it crucially made sexual violence everyone’s problem.
To me, sexual violence is an extreme form of behavior that stems from a core belief about the relative worth of women and girls. There are many other manifestations of this belief that women and girls are less valuable to us than men and boys: denial of educational opportunities for women, sex discrimination of all sorts and in all sorts of sectors. But the physical attack of a woman’s body is among the most extreme manifestations of this general principle. And that’s why it is such a powerful act and so difficult to overcome for the survivor. It’s a complete denial of women’s agency.
So how will change occur? First, we must acknowledge that male supremacy is foundational to patriarchy. Without a true societal commitment to examining and addressing the social, political, and economic power men possess over women and children, rape culture will not cease.
It occurs in complex and often unpredictable ways, in big ways and small. Here are a few examples:
- Normative changes at the United Nations that recognizes, for example, rape as a tactic of war.
- The film The Hunting Ground presented an emotional case to the audience. The film was made by the survivors of sexual violence on the UNC campus, was screened on campus, and is being shown on CNN.
- The creation and use of the phrase “rape culture” as a shorthand for the kind of belief system that permits the annihilation of women’s agency.
- Raising our boys to be nurturing, non-violent, and to re-construct masculinity so it is not in opposition to femininity.
- Raise our girls to reject messages about sexuality that are violent even if the messengers are women.
- The education work done by the Center that reaches 15,000 people each year, including outreach to our young people in schools.
As we unite around the world for 16 Days Against Gender-Based Violence, let’s commit to real action. In struggling for worldwide change, we must strike at patriarchy, the very root of the problem, for true transformation. Is that easy? No. Is it quick? No. But it is powerful.
Dr. Anu Kumar gave this speech as the keynote of the Center’s 28th Annual Holiday Auction. Through experience with the World Health Organization, the MacArthur Foundation, and now as the Executive Vice President for Development, Communications, and Community Access at Ipas, Dr. Kumar has been a major public voice for global women’s reproductive health and rights.